South Africa is the major destination for human traffickers, with women and children from more than 10 African countries being smuggled into the country, according to a UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) report released on Friday.
The report, "Trafficking in human beings, especially women and children, in Africa", said South Africa was also a favoured destination for global traffickers, who smuggled in women and girls from Thailand for prostitution.
There are no reliable estimates on the actual number of people being trafficked. The study, based on information from 53 African countries, provides an analysis of the patterns, root causes, and existing national and regional policy responses.
The women and children are either sexually exploited, used as labour or their organs are harvested.
While poverty has been recognised as the most "visible cause for trafficking human beings ... another strong determinant is the particular vulnerability of women and children, which makes them an easy target for traffickers". Patterns of oppression, discrimination, social and cultural prejudices, and the prevalence of gender violence put children and women at greater risk and ensures the flourishing of the trafficking trade.
"Sexual exploitation - in particular, prostitution - is the most widely documented form of exploitation for women and children trafficked within and from Africa," said the report. In certain instances it has been "exacerbated also by a demand from foreigners", such as in holiday resorts in Malawi, where children are reported to be sexually exploited by European tourists, or sent to Europe as sex slaves.
According to UNICEF, in some cases traditional practices can contribute to the trafficking of women and girls. "When poverty is acute, a young girl may be regarded as an economic burden and her marriage to a much older man can be a family survival strategy". About 20 percent of girls aged below 19 are married at an early age in Southern Africa. The average age of women at first marriage in Mozambique is 17 years.
Children and women are smuggled in by road, railway, river or sea. Physical barriers, such as mountains, deserts or forests can pose obstacles. "For example, while the shortest route for trafficking between Mozambique and South Africa is through Kruger National Park, it is reported that traffickers tend to bypass this road because of the danger of encountering wild animals", said the report, so traffickers often take the longer route through Zimbabwe.
Mozambican women have been smuggled in by taxis because corruption in law enforcement or judicial systems helps traffickers across borders. "For instance, illegal crossings at Lesotho's border posts are facilitated by the reported tendency of favouritism towards certain known individuals. There is a recent reported case of a victim from Lesotho who crossed the borders at the hands of South African traffickers, and indicated that at the border post there was no passport check," said the report.
Where law enforcement officials are vigilant, as in Botswana, traffickers often divert their operations through a neighbouring country to bypass border controls.
South African law enforcement officials "rarely receive factual reports on trafficking, and people are not very forthcoming with information on traffickers," according to police spokeswoman Mary Martins-Engelbrecht.
Legislation to outlaw trafficking was before parliament at the moment. "However, we still get around it and arrest people for possession of illegal identification or travel documents," she said.
A global umbrella body for organisations and individuals involved in eliminating the sexual exploitation of children, End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes (ECPAT) International, initiated projects in South Africa, Mozambique and Malawi last year.
The projects are run in collaboration with the Sithabile Centre in South Africa, Rede da Crianca in Mozambique and Eye of the Child in Malawi. They provide the victims of child trafficking with counselling, and empower them to claim their rights and understand their responsibilities.
The report quoted UNICEF executive director Carol Bellamy as saying that "trafficking is among the worst violations of child rights in the world".
"If we are to put an end to this brazen trade, we need courageous government leaders who will criminalise the trafficking of children in all its forms. Failure to do so is an abuse of children," Bellamy said.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
We uncovered the sex abuse scandal that rocked the WHO, but there’s more to do
We just covered a report that says the World Health Organization failed to prevent and tackle widespread sexual abuse during the Ebola response in Congo.
Our investigation with the Thomson Reuters Foundation triggered this probe, demonstrating the impact our journalism can have.
But this won’t be the last case of aid worker sex abuse. This also won’t be the last time the aid sector has to ask itself difficult questions about why justice for victims of sexual abuse and exploitation has been sorely lacking.
We’re already working on our next investigation, but reporting like this takes months, sometimes years, and can’t be done alone.
The support of our readers and donors helps keep our journalism free and accessible for all. Donations mean we can keep holding power in the aid sector accountable, and do more of this.